CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas (AP) Videos of workers forcing developmentally disabled residents to fight at a state-run living center, punctuated by staff laughter and warnings of "no biting," were shown to jurors Tuesday during the trial for one of six indicted former workers.
Four short cell phone videos taken by a night worker at Corpus Christi State School showed one resident terrified, screaming while running around a room as another resident tried to hit him. In another video, a resident was told to push another far bigger resident to instigate a fight. The facility houses about 360 people.
"This was their form of entertainment," said Nueces County Assistant District Attorney Doug Mann.
Jesse Salazar, 25, is accused of helping instigate and failing to stop the fights in what police called a "fight club." If convicted, Salazar could face up to 10 years in prison.
Before jurors saw the videos, defense attorney Cecil Starcher told them that they showed Salazar trying to stop the fights. But the grainy images showed that when Salazar was not instigating or filming a fight, he intervened only before fighting residents fell on the ground or appeared to be hitting each other in the head, which one witness said was to avoid visible injuries.
Almost 20 videos dating back to 2007 were discovered in March when a cell phone containing the images was found at a clothing store and turned in to police. The videos shown Tuesday took place in early 2008.
"It's one of the saddest things you've ever seen," Mann told jurors, adding that fights were sometimes instigated by employees using pranks.
Amanda Morales, a facility investigator for Texas Adult Protective Services, testified that she worked in the unit on the day shift in 2008 before moving to her current job and was unaware of the fights. When watching the videos, she said "it's upsetting" and said staff should have intervened before residents had any physical contact.
Michael Pugh, a 34-year-old resident at the facility, testified that staff members wanted him to fight other residents. In one video, Pugh can be seen chasing another terrified resident as staff egg him on.
Asked if he recognized anyone from the facility in the courtroom Tuesday, Pugh pointed to and identified Salazar. Pugh said he did not remember who he fought, but said staff encouraged him to do it.
But his testimony conflicted at times. He initially said only Timothy Dixon, a defendant accused of filming the bouts, made him fight. He then said he didn't remember Salazar watching the fights, and minutes later said of Salazar, "it wasn't him all the way through, but some of it was him."
Former employees testified they were afraid of reporting the fights and that Pugh wasn't normally violent.
Vincent Johnson, who pleaded guilty last week to not intervening to stop a fight and received a suspended sentence, said talk about Pugh's deceased mother could set him off but he wasn't normally violent. Johnson said he did not report the abuse because, "I didn't want to make it seem like I was against the staff."
Another former employee, Stephanie Garza, who was charged with not intervening but offered immunity in exchange for her testimony, said the fights began shortly after she started work at the facility. She said one staff member told her, "on this unit we don't like snitches."
Garza, 22, said she saw orchestrated fights about twice a week and remembered one that left a resident with a black eye.
In one video, Salazar is seen motioning to resident David Hernandez, who Garza said weighed about 150 pounds, to sneak up behind and push fellow resident Anthony Boatman — who Garza estimated was about 240 pounds. Boatman responded by chasing Hernandez around the room and punching him several times in the chest.
Boatman backed off and then, with Salazar standing a couple feet away, Hernandez grabbed Boatman from behind. Boatman threw him to the floor and punched him several times in the face before they separated. Salazar raised Hernandez's arm in victory.
If convicted of intentionally promoting a fight that resulted in an injury to a disabled person or striking a resident, Salazar could face between two and 10 years in prison. If jurors decide Salazar's crime was one of omission for not stopping the fights, he could be sentenced to between six months and two years in jail.
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